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Ethnic identity development includes self-categorization in, and psychological attachment toward, an ethnic group. Ethnic identity is characterized as part of one’s overarching self-concept. Development of ethnic identity is described as a process of the construction of identity over time,[1] due to a combination of experience and actions of the individual[2] and includes gaining knowledge and understanding of in-group(s), as well as a sense of belongingness to an ethnic group(s).

Ethnic identity is sometimes interchanged with, held distinct from, or considered as overlapping with racial identity. This disagreement in the distinction (or lack thereof) between these concepts may originate from the incongruity of definitions of race and ethnicity, as well as the historic conceptualization of models and research surrounding ethnic and racial identity. Research on racial identity development emerged from the experiences of African Americans during the civil rights movement, however expanded over time to include the experiences of other racial groups.[3]


Generally, group level processes of ethnic identity have been explored by social science disciplines, including sociology and anthropology. In contrast, ethnic identity research within psychology usually focuses on the individual and interpersonal processes. Within psychology, ethnic identity is typically studied by social, developmental and cross-cultural psychologists.[4] Models of ethnic development emerged in both social and developmental psychology, with different theoretical roots.

Roots in Social PsychologyEdit

Ethnic Identity emerged in social psychology out of Social Identity Theory. Social identity theory posits that belonging to social groups (e.g. religious groups or occupational groups) serves an important basis for one’s identity.[5] Membership in a group(s), as well as one’s value and emotional significance attached to this membership, is an important part of one’s self-concept. One of the earliest statements of social identity was made by Kurt Lewin, who emphasized that individuals need a firm sense of group identification in order to maintain a sense of well-being.[6] Social identity theory emphasizes a need to maintain a positive sense of self. Therefore in respect to ethnic identity, this underscores affirmation to and salience of ethnic group membership(s). In light of this, affirmation of ethnicity has been proposed to be more salient among groups who have faced greater discrimination, in order to maintain self-esteem.

Relatedly, collective identity is an overarching framework for different types of identity development, emphasizing the multidimensionality of group membership.[7] Part of collective identity includes positioning oneself psychologically in a group to which you share some characteristic(s). This positioning does not require individuals to have direct contact with all members of the group. The collective identity framework has been related to ethnic identity development, particularly in recognizing the importance of personal identification of ethnicity through categorical membership. Collective identity also includes evaluation of one’s category.[7] This affective dimension is related to the importance of commitment and attachment toward one’s ethnic group(s). A behavioral component of collective identity recognizes that individuals reflect group membership through individual actions, such as language usage, in respect to ethnic identity.[7]

Roots in Developmental PsychologyEdit

Identity becomes especially salient during adolescence as recognized by Erik Erikson’s stage theory of psychosocial development. An individual faces a specific developmental crisis at each stage of development. In adolescence, identity search and development are critical tasks during what is termed the ‘Identity versus Role-confusion’ stage. [8] Achievement of this stage ultimately leads to a stable sense of self. The idea of an achieved identity includes reconciling identities imposed on oneself with one’s need to assert control and seek out an identity that brings satisfaction, feelings of industry and competence. In contrast, identity confusion occurs when individuals fail to achieve a secure identity, and lack clarity about their role in life.

James Marcia elaborated on Erik Erikson’s model to include identity formation in a variety of life domains. Marcia’s focus of identity formation includes two processes which can be applied to ethnic identity development: an exploration of identity and a commitment.[9] Marcia defines four identity statuses which combines the presence or absence of the processes of exploration and commitment: Identity diffusion (not engaged in exploration or commitment), identity foreclosure (a lack of exploration, yet committed), moratorium (process of exploration without having made a commitment), and identity achievement (exploration and commitment of identity).

Phinney's Model of Ethnic Identity DevelopmentEdit

Jean Phinney’s model of ethnic identity development is a multidimensional model, with theoretical underpinnings of both Erikson and Marcia.[1][10] In line with Erikson's identity formation, Phinney focuses on the adolescent, acknowledging significant changes during this time period, including greater abilities in cognition to contemplate ethnic identity, as well as a broader exposure outside of their own community, a greater focus on one's social life, and an increased concern for physical appearance.[10]

Phinney's Three Stage Progression:

  • Unexamined Ethnic Identity – Prior to adolescence, children either give ethnicity little thought (related to Marcia's diffuse status) or are assumed to have derived their ethnic identity from others, rather than engaging in personal examination. This is related to Marcia's foreclosed identity status. Knowledge of one's ethnicity is "absorbed", which reflects the process of socialization.

Broadly, socialization in the context of ethnic identity development refers to the acquisition of behaviors, perceptions, values, and attitudes of an ethnic group(s).[11] This process recognizes that feelings about one’s ethnic group(s) can be influenced by family, peers, community, and larger society. These contextual systems or networks of influence delineate from ecological systems theory. These systems influence children’s feelings of belonging and overall affect toward ethnic group(s). Children may internalize both positive and negative messages and therefore hold conflicting feelings about ethnicity. Socialization highlights how early experiences for children are considered crucial in regards to their ethnic identity development.

  • Ethnic Identity Search- During the onset of adolescence, there is a questioning of accepted views of ethnicity and a greater understanding of ethnicity in a more abstract sense. Typically this stage is in characterized as being initiated by a significant experience that creates heightened awareness of ethnicity, such as discrimination. Engagement in some form of exploration includes an interest in learning more about one's culture and actively involving oneself in activities such as talking with others about ethnicity, reading books on the subject, and thinking about both the current and future effects of one's ethnicity.[10] This stage is related to Erikson's ‘Identity versus Role-confusion’, and Marcia's moratorium.
  • Ethnic Identity Achievement- This stage is characterized by clarity about one’s ethnic identity. The achievement phase includes a secure, confident, and stable sense of self. Achievement also is characterized as a realistic assessment of one's in-group(s) in a larger social context. In essence, the individual has internalized their ethnicity.This stage is related to Erikson's achieved identity, and identity achievement of Marcia. Identity achievement is also related to social identity theory in that this acceptance replaces one's negative ethnic self-image.[10] Although achievement represents the highest level of ethnic identity development, it should be noted Phinney recognizes that reexamination can occur depending on experiences over time.[2]

More recently, Phinney has focused on the continuous dimensions of one's exploration and commitment to one's ethnic group(s), rather than on distinct identity statuses.[2]


Research reveals ethnic identity development is related to psychological well-being. Ethnic identity has been linked with positive self-evaluation[10] and self-esteem[12] Ethnic identity development has also been shown to serve as a buffer between perceived discrimination and depression.[13] Specifically, commitment of an ethnic identity may help to abate depressive symptoms experienced soon after experiencing discrimination, which in turn alleviates overall stress. Researchers posit commitment to an ethnic identity group(s) is related to additional resources accumulated through the exploration process, including social support.[13] Ethnic identity development has been linked to happiness and decreased anxiety. Specifically, regard for one’s ethnic group may buffer normative stress.[14] In contrast, empirical evidence suggests that ethnic identity exploration may be related to vulnerability to negative outcomes, such as depression.[13] Findings suggest this is due to an individual’s sensitivity to awareness of discrimination and conflicts of positive and negative images of ethnicity during exploration. Also, while commitment to an ethnic group(s) is related to additional resources, exploration is related to a lack of ready-access resources.[13]

Other considerationsEdit

Ethnic identity development has been conceptualized and researched primarily within the United States. Due to the fact the individuals studied are typically from the United States, it may not be appropriate to extend findings or models to individuals in other countries. Some research has been conducted outside of the United States, however a majority of these studies were in Europe or countries settled by Europeans.[1]

Another research consideration is that some studies of ethnic development are cross-sectional in design. This type of design lacks in comparison to longitudinal design when the topic of investigation is developmental in nature. This is due to the fact in cross-sectional studies, researchers collect data at on or around the same time point from multiple individuals of different ages of interest, instead of collecting data over multiple time points for each individual in the study, which would allow the researcher to compare change for individuals over time, as well as differences between individuals.

Some researchers question the number of dimensions of ethnic identity development. For example, some measures of ethnic identity development include measures of behaviors, such as eating ethnic food or participating in customs specific to an ethnic group. One argument is that while behaviors oftentimes express identity, and are typically correlated with identity, ethnic identity is an internal structure that can exist without behavior.[2] It has been suggested one can be clear and confident about one's ethnicity, without wanting to maintain customs.[1] Others have found evidence of a behavioral component of ethnic identity development, separate from cognition and affect, and pertaining to one's ethnic identity.[15]

Ethnic identity development points toward the importance in research to allow an individual to self-identify ethnicity when collecting biographical information, if at all possible. This method allows for capturing the most accurate and relevant information as far as the subjective identification of the participant, and can be useful in particular with respect to research with multiethnic individuals.[1]

References Edit

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Phinney, J. S. (1990). Ethnic identity in adolescents and adults: A review of research. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 499–514.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Phinney, J. S. & Ong, A.D. (2007). Conceptualization and measurement of ethnic identity: Current status and future directions. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 54, 271-281.
  3. Wijeyesinghe, C. L., & Jackson, B. W. (2001). New perspectives on racial identity development. New York: NYU Press.
  4. Phinney, J. Ethnic identity. In A. Kazdin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Psychology (Vol. 3, pp. 255-259). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  5. Tajfel, H. & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of inter-group behavior. In S. Worchel & L. W. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Chicago: Nelson-Hall
  6. Lewin, K. (1948). Resolving social conflicts. New York: Harper.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Ashmore, R. D., Deaux, K., & McLaughlin-Volpe, T. (2004). An organizing framework for collective identity: Articulation and significance of multidimensionality. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 80-114.
  8. Erikson, E.H.(1968). Identity, youth, and crisis. New York: Norton.
  9. Marcia, J.E. (1991). Identity and self development. In R. Lerner, A. Peterson, & J. Brooks-Gunn (Eds.), Encyclopedia of adolescence(Vol.1). New York: Garland.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 Phinney, J. (1989). Stages of ethnic identity in minority group adolescents. Journal of Early Adolescence, 9, 34-49.
  11. Rotherman, M., & Phinney, J. (1987). Introduction: Definitions and perspectives in the study of children's ethnic socialization. In J. Phinney & M. Rotherman (Eds.), Children's ethnic socialization: Pluralism and development (pp. 10-28). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.
  12. Greene, M.L., Way, N., Pahl, K. (2006). Trajectories of perceived adult and peer discrimination among black, Latino, and Asian American adolescents: Patterns and psychological correlates. Developmental Psychology, 42, 218-238.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 Torres, L., & Ong, A. D. (2010). A daily diary investigation of Latino ethnic identity, discrimination, and depression. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 16(4), 561-568.
  14. Kiang, L., Yip, T., Gonzales-Backen, M., Witkow, M., & Fuligni, A. J. (2006). Ethnic identity and the daily psychological well-being of adolescents from Mexican and Chinese backgrounds. Child Development, 77(5), 1338-1350.
  15. Gaines, S.O., Bunce, D., Robertson, T., Wright, B. (2010). Evaluating the psychometric properties of the Multigroup Ethic Identity Measure (MEIM) within the United Kingdom. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 10, 1-19.
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